Monday, November 5, 2012

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


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The book's synopsis from the publisher's website:

‘Now that I had finished, the beauty of my dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart …’

Obsessed by creating life itself, Victor Frankenstein plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, which he shocks into life by electricity. But his botched creature, rejected by Frankenstein and denied human companionship, sets out to destroy his maker and all that he holds dear. 

Mary Shelley’s chilling gothic tale was conceived when she was only eighteen, living with her lover Percy Shelley near Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Frankenstein would become the world’s most famous work of horror fiction, and remains a devastating exploration of the limits of human creativity.

Many thoughts float through my mind now that I'm finished with this gem. These thoughts seem to be in disagreement with the majority of other readers (fans or not) of Frankenstein. But maybe this tale is a classic precisely because it means so many different things to so many readers. I don't usually use 'timeless' in relation to any pieces of literature, or at least not lightly. But Mary wrote a timeless story if ever there was one. Here's why:

People are assholes and I'm part of 'people', and Frankenstein is a mirror of truth that shows humanity's real reflection and if there have ever been monsters populating this world, it's always been people that are the most dangerous, the most destructive and the cruelest. Maybe Prometheus is not supposed to be praised for saving humanity (there are multiple versions of that myth so, who knows?) but was in the wrong and Zeus was correct in wanting to let humanity perish? Whatever your conclusions may be, one thing is certain: the story of Victor's creation is heartbreaking and I indeed shed tears of sorrow. That being was a beautiful one. He was someone instinctively prepared to be good, do good and see good in others. Whatever evil he did was grounded in what he learned from humans, starting and ending with an all-consuming selfishness and obsession with revenge he learned from his creator, Victor Frankenstein.

What I'm mainly in disagreement with other readers (and lit. critics) is that I don't see any direct link between Mary Shelley's story and religion, God and the dangers of trying to play god in science, and hence going too far. I think if there is anything we're getting warned against, it's the dangers of our passions that can turn into obsession and  push us over the edge where no morality, no good or evil any longer exist but only our singular drive to achieve what we obsess over. It blinds us to everything and everyone. Victor tries to give that warning to the young man to whom he tells his story. As a matter of fact, it's actually one of the first things he says. He even mentions how, if we took our time and not let the sick obsession take over our beings, America would have been discovered much later but without the tragedy and bloodshed the actual discovery otherwise left in its wake*.

I also think that Mary Shelley was in fact a very talented and deliberate writer even then, even at nineteen. I know that many criticize her for the lack of polish and certain amateurishness in her writing. And I'm sure those people know what they're talking about, some of them are my reading friends who I'm 100% certain know what they're saying. But here's my thought: choosing to let Victor tell his own story, she made his account reflect his hideous personality with an accuracy that wouldn't have been present if told in the third person by Captain Walton to whom the story was told. Third person narration would have been too impersonal to have the same impact or too tainted by the potential narrator who was clearly enthralled by Victor. Hence, Victor is despicable because Mary wanted us, the readers, to perceive him as precisely such. Criticism, therefore, of the whole book based on a reader hating Victor is unfounded and should, I think, be re-considered.

**Minor Spoiler**
Victor is in thralls of the very obsession he's moralizing against to the very end, when on his deathbed he is willing to tie the young captain and the lives of everyone on the ship to the promise of chasing after Victor's monster until he is killed. So yeah, Victor is quite a little hypocrite too.

Last but least, the fact that Captain Walton, who also tells his own side of the story in letters (again, a lot more personal and with more impact) is feeling grief over Victor but not over the fate of Frankenstein's creature, that he sees nothing bad in and feels no anger over Victor's conduct/self-pity/self-glamorization is very telling as well. That right there seems to me to be Mary's commentary on the whole of humanity, on our bigotry, hypocrisy and inability to see and cultivate true beauty and innocence.

Frankenstein is really a beautiful and very sad story. It's worth everyone's time. The one thing I don't think it is, is a horror story. It's not at all scary. As I mentioned above, I actually cried over the tragedy of Frankenstein's creature. His despair, helplessness and hopelessness are truly moving. Not a story I will soon forget, if ever.

FTC: I purchased a copy of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

* It's not a direct quote, just my mixture of paraphrasing and interpreting of what Victor said.